Should We Really Be Reachable 24/7?

Awhile back, Yen over at the Book Publicity Blog posted about including full contact information in e-mail signatures. One commenter suggested always including your cell phone in your e-mail signature when pitching the media. This made me wonder whether or not people expect all publicists to be reachable at all times. I understand that certain types of publicity and industries lend themselves to 24/7 accessibility (crisis communications for instance), but do most books really need that from a publicist? In the business category alone, Jack Covert at 800 CEO Read says 11,000 books are published each year. So, unless the book is written by a major news figure, embargoed, or ties-in with breaking news, is it really necessary to reach the book’s publicist during Sunday brunch with friends and family?

There have been times when I’ve checked in on voicemail and e-mail when a book/author related to breaking news, especially if I was actively pitching the media that day or right before the weekend, but I worry about the implications of being on-call 24/7. And it’s not just the cell phone. Increasingly, it seems as though an immediate response is expected to e-mail (not a realistic expectation), and that with the popularity of devices like the Blackberry and the iPhone, it’s often assumed that people are using them after regular business hours to check in on work.

The current business environment, where individuals are more likely to have the workload that used to be handled by another person (or more) on top of their regular duties, certainly encourages being more connected to work. However, I think a better balance can probably be struck by checking in to see how tomorrow morning is shaping up (hmm…3 important e-mails to answer before that 10 am meeting. No hitting the snooze button three times tomorrow!), rather than feeling like it’s necessary to respond after hours.

Disconnecting from work is essential to refreshing yourself (helping you be more productive when you are actually at the office!). Unless there really is something urgent that requires your attention after regular work hours, turning off that Blackberry when you’re out with friends or spending time with family seems, to me anyway, necessary to be fully in the moment.

I think this also extends to how we use technology outside of work. How many of us have met a friend for a drink or dinner, excused ourselves for a moment, and come back to find our friend busy texting? (Or worse, they start texting while you are actually talking to them?) We all have those friends who do it every. single. time. Or answer every call they receive on their cell phones while they are catching up with us. What’s wrong with just focusing on who you’re with, and not communicating with others for bit?

Worse yet, is the cellphone that is answered only to say “Hi, I’m at the gym (or on the train and about to go in a tunnel), can I call you back?” I always wonder, why didn’t they just let it go to voicemail? Isn’t that what voicemail is for? When did having a cell phone turn in to a requirement to answer that phone every single time it rings? At times, of course there are people you’ve been trying to connect with so you want to answer no matter what, or there are people who call so rarely you wonder what’s wrong, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on most of the time when someone answers their cell phone right before the N train descends under the East River. And you know what they are going to say (loudly): “Hi! I’m on the train right now, and we’re about to go in a tunnel…we’re about to go in a tunnel…a tunnel….Can I call you back? Can I call you back? Can I…” At which point they will have lost the signal.

Okay, but back to work. I think there’s a number of things we can do to keep technology at bay (as best we can):

  1. Think about the message your actions send. If you routinely answer e-mails at 10 pm, it suggests that you are reachable and working at 10 pm. If you have clients, this seems problematic. Especially if they start to think that kind of availability is to be expected. If you have direct reports, doesn’t working that late suggest to them that they should be similarly available? Even if you are answering e-mails at 10 pm (and I’ve done it later than that, during an occasional bout of insomnia), why not save it as a draft and send it first thing in the morning? I can see though, wanting your boss to know you’re a hard worker and willing to put in extra hours when needed, so sending an e-mail at 7 pm – to your boss – seems like a good idea to me.
  2. Remember that e-mail is not IM. We all want a reasonable amount of time to answer an e-mail, and we have to give the same kind of time to those we e-mail. 24 business hours seems reasonable to me. If it’s urgent, mark the e-mail as urgent, and it will get looked at right away (just make sure it really is urgent. We all know the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, right?)
  3. Recognize that e-mail overload is very real. I have all my e-newsletters sent to a Yahoo address. I use an RSS reader. Yet, I typically receive 40-70 e-mails a day. Sometimes more. Imagine that on average, I spend 5 minutes on each e-mail (keeping in mind, some e-mails take 40 minutes to write a response to, some are just deleted). That’s more than 3 hours each day spent on 40 e-mails. What I get on a slow day. So, we all agree that if someone hasn’t responded to an e-mail, sending another e-mail to follow-up probably isn’t helpful, right? Far better is a quick phone call to bring it to someone’s attention. Or maybe it’s in the Spam folder, and the person you’re trying to reach hasn’t checked in a couple days.
  4. We all have to prioritize. I’m a publicist, so media typically get my top priority. But even in that category, not everything warrants an immediate response. If someone is just asking me for a review copy, I can file that request away and answer it at the end of the day, and then get back to writing press material/creating a review list/pitching media contacts. If they’re asking for a review copy to be messengered so the book can be reviewed in The New York Times in two days…well, that gets answered and dealt with right away. Higher-ups in the corporate food chain get a high priority as well. An independent publicist gives clients as well as media a high priority. I think recognizing the need to prioritize, for yourself and for others, reminds us why giving people enough time to respond is essential to all of us getting our work done. And done well.
  5. E-mail subject lines are your friend. Make them mean something.
  6. Delete people who have been Cced, who don’t need to be Cced. They’ll be grateful. Really. Similarly, beware of “Reply to all.” Think about it, does everyone really need to know your response, or just the sender?
  7. Be willing to turn off your Blackberry after work, over the weekend, on vacation, etc. (And don’t feel bad about it). Okay, I’ll admit for some folks in certain positions, they can’t cut themselves off 100 percent. But, if you’re out to dinner with your better-half, you can probably turn it off then, right? And, junior staff probably don’t need to be that accessible. And, just because you have that Blackberry for work, doesn’t mean you have to use it on Labor Day weekend to answer non-urgent e-mails/phone calls. (I say this as a publicist who has on more than one occasion been on the bus, on my way to a holiday weekend getaway, arranging interviews with major media. So, yeah, it is part of the job sometimes.)

So, what do you think? What are some of your pet peeves about how technology has changed your work/life balance? How do you disconnect? Do you disconnect? How do you handle expectations of immediate response? What did I miss?

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